The Secret Life of Pets: Movie review

We finally got around to seeing The Secret Life of Pets, which has been out for a month. But it seems to be doing well enough; the theater last night was packed. It’s a funny, goofy movie, anarchic and chaotic. Really, it’s essentially a Keystone Kops movie; built on multiple chase scenes, making no sense whatsoever. It’s the kind of froth that had darn well better be funny, because it doesn’t have a lot more to offer than yucks. I mean, it does built on the genuine affection people have for their housepets, so there’s that. But the pets here do all sorts of things pets don’t/won’t/can’t do, so our enjoyment of it depends on how bothered we are by absurd implausibility.

Max (voiced by Louie CK), is a terrier, and his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), a single young woman and dog lover. Their life together seems idyllic, and during the day, when she’s at work, he hangs out with the other dogs and cats and birds owned by her neighbors. It’s a nice little dog/cat/bird community. Then Katie brings in a shaggy brown mutt, Duke, declaring him Max’s brother. And initially, they don’t get along. Duke eats Max’s food, sleeps in his pet bed, and is generally good-heartedly rambunctious in ways Max can’t relate to. So, we think, that’s going to be the movie–Duke and Max learning to get along.

Then an overburdened dog walker misplaces Duke and Max, and they’re unsupervised in a threatening urban environment, first attacked by a street gang of feral cats, then a group of sewer-dwelling ‘flushed pets,’ led by Snowball (Kevin Hart), a fluffy, cute, white bunny, who is also a psychopath. So there’s a chase scene involving the cats, then several other chase scenes, involving Max and Duke and Snowball’s troops. Meanwhile, Max’s friend Gidget (Jenny Slate), a poodle, gets worried about Max and mobilizes the other pets in Katie’s apartment building, and they head off on a search for their friend. Leading to further chaos and more chase scenes.

In the best Keystone Kops tradition, the chases that constitute 80% of this movie’s playing time are imaginatively conceived, and pretty amusing, if you’re able to suspend your disbelief sufficiently to remain untroubled by the spectacle of a teeny white fluffy bunny driving a city bus. And crashing animal control vans. And various other stunts and dodges. Eventually, we discover that terriers can use keys to open cages, which thing I had not previously supposed possible.

The movie is cleverly done, which means that it’s appeal depends on how willing you are to entertain its essential absurdity. I went back and forth. I’d think ‘oh, please, that’s preposterous.’ And then I’d think, ‘why is that more ridiculous than the rest of the movie?’ And give myself to the next silly chase scene. Overall, I’d say that I enjoyed it. The cartoon short, in which Minions try to do yardwork, was more fun than the main movie.

But I want to go back to the film’s title: The Secret Lives of Pets. When we leave for the day, and our pets remain behind, well, what do they do? And I’m sure we’ve all experienced those moments when we come home from work and discover that our pets have been up to all kind of mayhem. If comedy is built on truth, then this is a promising premise.

So for me, the funnier gags in the movie were not those precipitated by chase scenes, but those that felt more truthful. The well-coiffed dog who contentedly listens to Vivaldi while the master is home, then flips the stereo to death metal the second the master leaves. That’s funny. The cat overcome by temptation for the turkey in the fridge–funny. The more overtly comical moments in the film, for me, worked less well.

Still, it’s an amusing movie, a slight but agreeable confection, and, as it happened, just what my wife and I were in the mood for. At least the children in the theater last night seemed to like it, if that recommendation helps you decide.


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